Saturday, April 21, 2018


book by book, take three

Bookplates continue to find their way into my books.  Last night I was sitting in the book room long after dark, brush in hand, working my way through most of the books on two shelves.  Funny, some books seem to call out for bookplates and others seem to have no interest in them whatsoever - they are complete as they are and ask for no additions and indeed definitely do not want any, even when offered politely.  Sometimes the book's design simply leaves no room for anything extra, as I mentioned before, but more often than not it is a definite feeling.  Most interesting, and even a bit eerie.

Another striking thing I've realized as I do this: some books have been with me for so long.  We have been traveling companions through life, for decades and decades.  The very first book I put a bookplate in was a gift to me from my stepfather, given when I was five years old.  He inscribed it to me.  It is a book I absolutely love and re-read from time to time.  Ryan had never come across it, so this winter we read it aloud one evening, after I found a nice hardcover reprint to give to one of my nephews for his birthday, as he himself turned five.  I inscribed it to him.  What is the book?  The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard (the story was originally a chapter in Grahame's Dream Days from 1898, then Shepard illustrated it as a stand-alone book in 1938).  My old copy is a reprint.  It's a bit shabby after all this time, but I do love it so.  A great story about a book-loving boy and the peaceful dragon he befriends.  Saint George comes to town and the boy, the dragon, and the saint conspire to set up a mock-joust so the villagers will have a spectacle, without anyone being hurt or actually fighting.  A few of my other favorite children's books run along a similar theme - that of a big powerful creature purposefully choosing peace - The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson (Viking 1936, I have a later reprint), and Tiger Flower by Robert Vavra, illustrated by Fleur Cowles (Reynal 1969).  Wonderful stories to visit and visit again.

But back to bookplates - the second book I put a bookplate in was volume one of a two-volume set that already had someone else's bookplate inside.  So I tipped mine inside the back cover.  It is the Loeb Classical Library Virgil, containing the Eclogues, Georgics, and all of the Aeneid, translated by H. Rushton Fairclough (Harvard University Press 1935, and still in print!).  This copy was given to my grandfather, when he won his school's Latin Prize.  How do I know this?  The bookplate that was already inside the front cover says so, and has his name written neatly on it.  This is what I mean by books being our companions throughout our lives.  I am finding books like this, both from my family and books I bought myself, in high school and college in the 1980s, not to mention the many books I bought or was given as reading copies at my first bookstore job in the 1990s.  I remember these books when they were brand new, fresh from the press!  Now here they are, showing signs of age.  Pages discoloring, foxing, general wear and tear.  In other words, a lot like me, by this time in life, showing my age in no uncertain terms.

My grandfather's prize set is a wonderful keepsake, since I don't have many physical artefacts from his branch of the family, and he died a few years ago, after a very long and vibrant life.  What else will I find, as I go through my books?  By now, I have worked my way through many of my art books.  Amongst them I came across a gift from my biological father, with his flowing pen inscription taking up most of the front free endpaper, and written in words that bring his distinctive voice clearly to mind, even though he too has been gone for a few years now.  I also found a few art books I bought for myself when I first began to paint seriously, beyond just student work.  And the many many books since then, as I've continued to paint and seek out narratives written by artists, to help me along in my chosen profession.  And let's not even talk about my books-about-books yet, okay?  My other profession.  Another day, more books.  This late cold spring has benefitted the whole bookplate project in general, since I don't yet want to be outside much.  I'm doing a stack or two of books every two days or so, working in small bursts, and that pace feels ideal.

Reading, too.  I didn't really have a winter reading project this year.  But.  My interest in the British countryside continues and nearly all of my recent reading reflects that, so along with the bookplates themselves (engraved and printed in Cambridgeshire), perhaps that actually was my winter reading project.  And it continues into spring: 

A peek at my recent to-be-read pile.  We have been reading aloud again, bits of The Oldest Road: An Exploration of the Ridgeway by J.R.L. Anderson and Fay Godwin (Wildwood House 1979), and I am well into The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897 (Warne 1966) and The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (New Directions 1998).  I've read bits of poetry from Sebald's Across the Land and Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (Random House 2011).  And have finished Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey through Britain by Roger Deakin (Vintage 2000).  I must say this has been an ideal t-b-r pile and I am loath to break it up!  Waterlog was a joy from start to finish, on the heels of reading Deakin's Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (via Ronald Blythe) many weeks back.  With Waterlog, Deakin launched a wild swimming movement in the U.K. and beyond, and I can see why, because his writing is sublime and the reader wants to experience what he has described so well.  Nature.  Being truly engulfed in it, and part of it, in ways we have so often forgotten to be.  A taste - his visit to swim on and around the island of Belnahua, in Scotland (p.238):

"The beaches were all silver, black and grey, with fine black sand and all denominations of the island's slate coinage, some flecked with a starry night sky of fool's gold, others striated with the finest random white pencil lines of quartz, the doodling of mermaids.  The tides had sorted and screened them by size, stacking them like books end-on in flowing lines and whorls that traced the eddies and turbulence that clamoured over them."

All of these books are highly quotable.  Please indulge me in another, since it reminds me so much of my beloved peaceful creatures, mentioned above, and the odd, old tug of what we held in our hands when we were young.  From the Sebald poetry collection (pp.81-82), the first and last stanzas of his poem A Peaceable Kingdom:

"Like an early geographer
 I paint a lion or two
 or some other wild animal
 in my white memory fields

 Is it enough
 to be overcome
 by feeling
 at a few words
 in our children's
 school primer

 Are these the emblems
 of our love"

This question doesn't need to be answered but my heart can't help but say YES to it anyway.  The white memory fields of blank book pages and of empty canvases, waiting to be filled.  Oh dear.  I really didn't intend to write this much today, about so many things all at once.  I keep thinking I need to return to mentioning just one book at a time, here (...but did I ever actually do that?? hmmm, I have to wonder...), but I always seem to get carried away lately, and the books pile up.  As they do.  Perhaps in my next few posts I will in fact do something I've only thought about doing for quite some time - tell the story of just one book from my shelves.  One book at a time, for a change.  I am coming across many contenders as I work my way along, bookplates neatly stacked on the table beside me.  They seem to interleave into the books like pressed flowers or four-leaf clovers.  Lucky, lucky me, I often think, in the quiet of the evenings.

Monday, April 16, 2018


book by book, take two

Bookplate update:  I have begun the process of affixing bookplates to books.  At the local art supply store I found some excellent ph-neutral pva adhesive and am using that to tip in each bookplate.  Many interesting choices must be made along the way, and small problems dealt with.

First, even though I enjoy other people's markings in old books, I have to say I struggled to overcome my own long-held belief that books mustn't be defaced (by me personally) in any way.  I think the only time I ever wrote my name in a book or scribbled in a page's margin was when I was young, and once in college, in one particular book.  And I did have that well-known 1970s generic bookplate of a behatted hobbit/garden gnome figure in profile, walking and reading a book at the same time.  I remember receiving a gold box of them as a gift, and I wrote my name on a few and used them, but it's been a long time since I've come across one in any book I still own.  However I am now confident that if I still have such a thing it will eventually come to light, as I work my way through all the books in the book room, shelf by shelf!  Anyway, I did deal with this aversion to defacing my books simply because the new bookplates I now have are of such high quality that I convinced myself that I am adding something valuable to a book each time I affix one of Andy English's superb little wood engravings inside it.  Not going to lie, though - I still have a faint frisson of doubt, each time!  Will I regret this, in decades to come...?  No, I don't think I will.  Because this feels celebratory.

Second, when I bring a small stack of books to my work table and open them, I am almost always surprised by what I encounter within.  So far:  notes from friends, cards, and inscriptions and signatures from previous owners or best of all from the authors themselves.  And, decorative endpapers.  So, the dilemma immediately becomes - where to place the bookplate so it best complements whatever else is happening inside the book.  I think that putting it smack dab in the middle of an endpaper can be too much.  It takes up a lot of real estate and draws attention to itself and can be visually cut in half by the jacket flap, if there is one.  I looked at some of my other books for guidance.  Which I didn't find, because other people seem to have put their bookplates any old place they wanted.  Okay then, I suppose that is guidance in and of itself!  I am aiming for consistency as I go, and have for the most part settled on the upper left-hand corner of the pastedown endpaper, nestled into that pleasing 45-degree angle where the endpaper covers the book cloth.  I like this spot, because if the book has a dust jacket the dust jacket flap protects and even hides the whole bookplate, just enough for it to be a surprise of sorts.  But again, I have had to adapt and overcome my borderline obsessive tendencies to allow for what each book in hand calls for.  With the decorative or pictorial endpapers in particular.  Right now I am working my way through some art books, and many of them have elaborate paintings or illustrations by the artists reproduced on their endpapers.  And I don't want to obscure them or cover up an important element in that overall image.  Luckily, so far, there is always at least one corner that is more or less empty, either in the front or back of the book.   Which leads to... 

Third, how to glue each bookplate in.  This time I did get significant guidance from some of the books I own that already have other people's bookplates in them.  I find that I definitely prefer the tipped-in-along-one-edge vs. the completely-glued-down.  I have a small paintbrush and some scrap paper, and it's becoming easy to go through the necessary steps with each book:  open the book, fold back the dust jacket if there is one, decide where the bookplate will go and position it so I feel confident about both placement and visual appropriateness, then turn the bookplate over, place it face down on a clean area of the scrap paper, swipe a small amount of adhesive from the bottle on to the brush, gently brush the adhesive along the top edge (or sometimes along the bottom or side instead, depending on what else is already happening on the endpapers), being careful to use a thin layer and brush from the bookplate outward on to the scrap paper, not the other way around, so no wayward glue bloblets can work their way on to the front of the bookplate by accident.  Then quickly put down the brush and pick up the bookplate, turn it over, place it carefully where it wants to go, and utilize that second or two before the adhesive takes hold to make sure the bookplate is squared up with the edges of the endpaper and the book cover itself.  Then press gently down on the bookplate with a folded scrap of paper towel, over the glued area, to ensure good adhesion and flatness by removing any trapped air.  This step also will pick up any stray bit of glue along the bookplate's edge, so I proceed with extreme caution.  Then the book rests open for a few minutes to allow the adhesive to completely dry.  I am leaving about a half inch of space between the bookplate and the endpaper's edges.  Like this, in my copy of The Selected Writings of John Marin, edited by Dorothy Norman (Pellegrini & Cudahy 1949, a decent first edition in a chipped jacket):

This all sounds hopelessly obsessive and solipsistic, I do realize.  I mean, beyond beyond.  But in my own defense, should anyone decide to take me to court and judge me for it, I will say that this contemplative, repetitive task - the snail's pace of it and the timelessness of the project in general (booklovers and collectors and librarians have been doing this very thing for centuries! and I am now part of that continuum!) - is frankly joy-making.  I am quietly and deeply happy, as I am when I am painting, come to think of it, making all these small decisions again and again, while engaged in this bookish work.  It is a relief and a delight to turn off the news and turn to this instead - this news of the day.  Placing a bookplate inside a book feels like putting a stamp on a letter, a letter to some future person I do not know but love anyway, with all my heart.  A gentle, wonderful surprise, for that someone, that booklover of the future.  And maybe even to my own future self as well?  Because in years to come, when I take a book down from the shelf and open it up, I know I will smile when I see these bookplates looking back at me.

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